Politics & Policy

Hillary: The Democrats’ Nixon

(Win McNamee/Getty)
She's secretive, scandal-plagued, and seemingly inevitable.

Ever since Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal broke earlier this month, comparisons between her secretive style and that of Richard Nixon, whom she ironically pursued as a young lawyer on the House impeachment committee, have been frequent. But with Friday’s revelation that she wiped her private e-mail server clean after her records were requested by the State Department last year, the comparisons are becoming more concrete. Washington wags note that even Nixon never destroyed the tapes, but Hillary has permanently erased her e-mails.

Exactly what would a Hillary presidency look like, and could it plunge the nation into another round of debilitating Clinton scandals? That’s a question Democrats should ask themselves before they hand the nomination over to her with barely a fight. Indeed, while a new CBS poll finds more than eight out of ten Democrats want her to run, a surprising 66 percent want to see her run with strong competition in the primaries.

Many Democrats have reservations about Hillary’s cozy relations with Wall Street, her 2002 vote for the Iraq War, and the Clinton couple’s “flexibility” on issues. “They love winning. They’re both masters of it, Hillary maybe even more than Bill. But that’s not the same as having a belief system,” noted the liberal Rolling Stone magazine this month. But some Democrats also want Hillary to be challenged on her Nixonian penchant for slipperiness and questionable fundraising. 

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A strong primary challenge would provide clues as to how she would run in a general election — something Democrats should know. After all, the first Clinton presidency was good for the Clintons, but not for the Democratic party, which lost both houses of Congress along with a majority of the nation’s governorships — and during a time of economic prosperity and peace.

There is another historical example that should prompt Democrats to want to test Hillary and consider the alternatives. The Republican party and many conservatives made a fatal mistake in 1968 when they nominated Richard Nixon despite ample evidence he was a political conniver, had been involved in various financial scandals during his career, and was at best only a “sunshine soldier” when it came to taking up conservative causes.

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Todd S. Purdum of Politico notes that Hillary Clinton “is in the midst of re-tooling herself and her staff for a 2016 campaign that will presumably introduce at least some version of a ‘New Hillary.’” Purdum highlights the obvious echoes of Richard Nixon, who created and presented a more humane “New Nixon” to American voters in 1968 as he tried to recover from his own humiliating loss of the presidency eight years earlier. “It was an exercise in media control and manipulation,” the historian Michael Genovese has written.

But it worked. Convinced that Nixon was the most conservative candidate who could win in 1968, conservatives ranging from Barry Goldwater to Strom Thurmond to William F. Buckley endorsed him. Nixon himself cynically observed of his new conservative allies: “They don’t like me, but they tolerate me.”

#related#Nixon’s rivals for the 1968 nomination, Nelson Rockefeller on the left and Ronald Reagan on the right, begged conservatives to reconsider. Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer, wrote that “both men shared a deep concern about Nixon; they saw him as a deeply flawed man who had the capacity to wreck the party.”

As soon as Nixon got into office, he began disappointing conservatives on issues ranging from welfare to Taiwan, from new bureaucratic departments to wage and price controls. Ralph de Toledano, a conservative columnist who had written a laudatory biography of Nixon, concluded as early as 1969: “The conservatives won the election for Richard Nixon — and they are losing the election to him. It can no longer be denied that those to the right of center who carried November 6 for Mr. Nixon have gotten less than the back of his hand for their effort.”

By 1971 William F. Buckley and a dozen other prominent conservatives had to “suspend” support for the Nixon White House. 

Then came Watergate, the Plumbers, wiretapping, illegal campaign cash, and obstruction of justice. On the night of Vice President Agnew’s resignation in October 1973 over corruption charges, Buckley addressed the New York Conservative party by saying, “It is a terrible irony that at the moment of history when liberalism is sputtering in confusion, we should be plagued by (morally) weak and devious men.”

Nixon’s fall from power the next year crippled conservatism, wiped out dozens of conservatives in the 1974 midterm elections, and left a stain on the republic. William Rusher, the publisher of National Review, looked back on conservatives who had enabled Nixon to win the 1968 nomination and said they owed history an accounting for “this uncharacteristic but unavoidable streak of opportunistic calculation.”

The Republican party and conservatives paid a stiff price for swallowing doubts about Nixon and elevating him to the presidency. There was enough evidence for them to be deeply concerned about how he would perform in office. There is certainly ample evidence for Democrats to worry about what a return of the Clintons to the White House could mean for their party.

But for all the private doubts about Hillary, in public it’s all happy talk from party leaders for now. Democratic strategist Steve McMahon appeared on Bloomberg News last week to claim Democrats were happy with the choice of Hillary Clinton. Host Mark Halperin quickly retorted, “Like the way Cuban voters are happy with their choices?”

Everybody on the panel laughed, but it rang hollow. Democrats are being presented with an inevitable nominee at the same time everyone seems afraid to raise legitimate doubts about her.

If Democrats ignore the warning signs about Hillary the way Republicans ignored the ones raised about Richard Nixon, they may well also owe history and their party a future accounting. 

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.

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